Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nose to the Air

Big, crowded, car-stacked cities with almost granular air quality were home for many years, though never in my case a cause for coughs, complaints, irritated eyes or throat, or any regret about living in a pall of bad air. It might have been a matter of not knowing what I was missing. Occasional trips into the country or desert always prompted a comment or two about the freshness of the air, something like, “Feels good to breathe this clean air, doesn’t it?” But in the end it never rankled much to leave that behind and return to the smog of big city home.

Saying goodbye to life in a giant metropolis, trading it for small beachtown life distant from all that traffic, smog, haze and grainy air certainly didn’t produce anything like an epiphany or a Eureka! of sudden appreciation for clean air. That took some time, some daily exposure to limitless horizons of ocean, sand and air. But it did eventually come.

Some months later and I am keenly attuned to the quality of air here along the Atlantic coast. Hard now to miss the slight change in wind and ocean, the presence of seaweed in offshore water, the passing of someone slicked with suntan oil, daubed with perfume. A smoking cigarette or cheap cigar fifty feet distant, and the now and then whiff of rotting fish. But most of all is the physical awareness of breathing clean, wind-driven air that reaches to the tips of the toes and provides a heretofore unknown fuel that makes you feel you could walk forever.

Living on the beach is sand between toes, salt water in your mouth and that aromatic sea air in your nose. But what gives the ocean air that delightful and distinctive smell? From the scientific standpoint the smell comes from a gas produced by ocean-dwelling bacteria. Bacteria consume decaying plankton and seaweed and produce a gas called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. This pungent gas is what often gives ocean air a fishy-briny-tangy smell. Some seabirds rely on DMS as a homing scent to find food. This fact was illustrated during field research when scientists on deck opened a bottle filled with the DMS-producing bacteria. Within minutes their boat was bombarded by hungry seabirds.

Ocean water, in descending amounts is composed of oxygen, hydrogen, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, sulfur,calcium, potassium, bromine and carbon. Look at this list and think for a moment about the human body. Perhaps we are drawn to the sea because we came from the sea, because we are made of the same. For all of us the blood in our veins has the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean; we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. When we go back to the sea, be it for swimming, sailing, walking its beaches or gazing at its depths, we are in some primordial sense returning to the place we came from.

The sea smells of ancient infinity, a briny aroma carried on wind out of the primal water we evolved from long ago.


  1. We humans and the ocean water were created by God and he made us out of the same elements. For what reason? I don't know except He made it for our enjoyment. One can breathe in the air of the sea and feel the ocean wind in his face and be refreshed for quite a while. Guess that's why there are lots of people who vacation at the beach. Good post.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America